Like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez I was raised Catholic. Counting graduate work at Georgetown, I attended Catholic schools for more than twenty years. My first college teaching job, which I held for three years, was at Wheeling College—since renamed Wheeling Jesuit University. Sometime around 1980, for a variety of reasons, I stopped considering myself a Catholic. Its dogmatism and lack of progressivism, especially since the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, was a partial explanation. Nevertheless, though considering myself an agnostic now for about four decades, I continue to admire many Catholics—and other believers—whose faith encourages them to act in loving ways toward their fellow human beings. Among such people I’ve written about are Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Pope Francis. Here I suggest that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is following in that tradition.
Elected in 2018—she became the youngest member of Congress—she has said that her Catholicism inspires her views on issues such as climate change and health care. She has pointed to the similarity of the Green New Deal, a 2019 congressional resolution she has co-sponsored, to Pope Francis’s earlier view expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’. Specifically, she noted that both calls for addressing climate change criticized unfettered capitalism and runaway consumption and reflected a concern for future generations. A Catholic publication quoted her as saying, “We do know that the Earth is sacred. . . . We have a responsibility to steward it and protect it.”
That same media source notes the influence of her religion on her views of health care. She cites the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan and other biblical stories dealing with healing to support her position on universal health care. She is “insistent that every human being should have access to a doctor, every human being should be cared for.”
Her religion has also influenced her views of our criminal justice system. In 2018, before her election victory, she wrote an article on her “Catholic faith and the urgency of criminal justice reform.” It appeared in America, a magazine published by the Jesuit order, the same order to which Pope Francis belongs and which runs various universities in the USA including Georgetown. She noted that “the United States incarcerates more of its people than any other nation in the world,” and “that mass incarceration evolved as an outgrowth of Jim Crow laws, which itself was a system rooted in the subjugation of former slaves.” She cited Michelle Alexander’s point that “there are more African-Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850.”
Regarding the imprisonment of Latinos, she suggests there also many but that “most states have little to no data on Latinos in the criminal justice system.” She insisted that “criminal justice reform must take into consideration” various issues such as “punitive Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations and the black-box detainment of immigrants and separated families,” as well as “the effects of incarceration on motherhood and mental health.” Reform, she added, demands “us to ask philosophical and moral questions. What should be the ultimate goal of sentencing and incarceration? Is it punishment? Rehabilitation? Forgiveness? For Catholics, these questions tie directly to the heart of our faith.” Her answer was that we should “aim to rehabilitate our brothers and sisters wherever possible and wherever necessary. By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”